Music Chronicle

Music Chronicle

Clark, Robert S

Music Chronicle

LORIN MAAZEL, HEARING THE END OF HIS THIRD YEAR as music director of the New York Philharmonic, has clearly put his stamp on the orchestra. He is a conductor of bold gestures, not averse to sacrificing spontaneity for micromanagement of detail. But the New York musicians are reported to approve of his leadership, and audiences seem to agree. As for the critics, they have wondered in print about his commitment to contemporary orchestral scores (Maazel is a composer himself, and audiences will hear a program of his works in March to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday). Shortly after his appointment, at a press conference, Maazel evaded a direct answer: “Conductors should perform music by composers they believe in.” But if pressed he can now point to the fact that in his first two seasons he has led four world premiere performances of New York Philharmonic commissions, and the current season has a flock of New York premieres of contemporary music.

Early in the current season, Maazel added another commission: Augusta Read Thomas’ Gathering Paradise: Emily Dickinson Settings for Soprano and Orchestra. Thomas’ credentials are impressive: she has received commissions from the National Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and other noteworthy ensembles, and since 1997 she has been composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony, which has premiered two of her orchestral works led by Pierre Boulez, with whom she has been closely associated. She will continue in that post until 2006.

Gathering Paradise links seven of Dickinson’s idiosyncratic poems, wrapping them in a rich post-harmonic orchestral garb. The vocal lines, tailored to the soprano voice of Heidi Grant Murphy, are characterized by wide pitch fluctuations, melismas, and extrapolated sounds. Thomas’ skill at orchestration is apparent, but it cannot rescue the score from a creeping monotony, arguably attributable more to the poet than to the composer or performers. Though the poems, all associated with light in Thomas’ view, include among Dickinson’s most coherent (“I dwell in Possibility” and “How still the Bells in Steeples stand”) and evocative (“Images of Light, Adieu” closes the cycle), the others are too elliptical to support the expressive burden the composer asks them to carry. To be sure, Murphy sang with secure tone and great agility, but Thomas’ orchestral fabric supplied most of the piece’s interest.

Before Gathering Paradise, Maazel and the orchestra played the Prelude to Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, as orchestrated by RimskyKorsakov, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the twenty-oneyear-old Chinese pianist Lang Lang as soloist. As surely the entire musical community knows by now, Lang’s reputation as one of the most formidable pianists of the day grows with every appearance, and he showed why in a performance that coupled mastery of the keyboard with a natural way with phrase and line and a fitting appreciation of the concerto’s slam-bang bravura moments. The orchestra matched him with solid concerted passages that nonetheless left room for affecting solo instrumental contributions. The result was a performance everyone could love.

Late 2004 saw another New York premiere of a work by a female composer, this time in the person of Kaija Saariaho. A Finn now in her early fifties, she has written in a wide variety of modes; the influence of her years spent working at IRCAM, Boulez’s Parisian center for the intersection of music and technology, can be heard in her scores for more traditional ensembles. She sprang to international prominence when her opera L’Amour de loin was presented to general acclaim at Salzburg’s summer festival in 2000.

Quatre Instanis for soprano and orchestra got its impetus from the desire of the extraordinary Finnish singer Karita Mattila to have a new work for recitals she was scheduled to sing in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and the Barbican Center in London in 2003. Saariaho asked the Lebanese poet Amin Maalouf, like her a resident of Paris and the librettist for L’Amour de loin, to supply texts suggesting the states of mind of a woman before, during, and after an amorous encounter: longing, anticipation, ecstatic surrender, remorse, and recollection. Maalouf’s verses create a trancelike web as they repeat themselves, contradict and circle back on one another, until in the end, after the woman’s lover departs, the auditor is left unsure whether he was there at all or merely a creature of her fevered imagination. After Mattila’s concerts, the composer orchestrated the work for presentation at a summer festival in Finland in 2003.

For once the hyperbole is fully justified: Karita Mattila occupies an unchallenged berth among the world’s most accomplished and versatile artists. The breadth of expressive means she brought to bear on this assignment was rare indeed and fit Saariaho’s diaphanous sound world like a glove. Some reports of her recent performances have warned that her untiring exploration of the margins of the repertoire-and she has not neglected the mainstream either-has taken its toll on her vocal production, but there was no evidence of such on this evening: she negotiated everything, from forte to piano, with sensuous tone and admirable security, producing a couple of ravishing mezzopianos at the top of her range. But what sticks in the mind, as with other Mattila performances, was the inflection and coloring of the text’s haunting lines. The orchestra, led by yet another Finn, Sakari Oramo, responded as if bewitched by Mattila-and, after the last note had died away, so did the audience.

One little remarked feature of New York’s artistic life is the wealth of music to be heard in churches in and around the city. The hub of this musical activity is the church choir, which sustains perhaps the hardestworking coterie of the area’s freelance professionals as well as a large number of dedicated amateurs. When these singers are not performing in church services, many of them appear in concerts, both sacred and secular, in the venues that host them on Sundays. The paying audience for these embraces both the congregations and the general public. For the larger choral works with orchestra, many groups hire vocal soloists, and the orchestra members are paid too, of course. The result is a continuous stream of reliably professional performances of choral works great and small, led by some of the area’s most talented conductors.

Among the offerings in the fall of last year, three stood out. In the Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, New York, a northern suburb of the city, the Master Singers of Westchester and an orchestra under the direction of the chorus’s founder Les Robinson Hadsell presented Bach’s Magnificat in D (BWV No. 243) and his Cantata “Gott der Herr ist Sonn’ und Schild’ (BWV No. 79), along with Handel’s Utrecht Jubilate “O be joyful in the Lord,” a setting of Psalm 100 for chorus and small orchestra written at the same time as the better known Utrecht Te Deum. In All Souls Universalist Church in Manhattan, Walter Klauss led his Musica Viva singers, the Alien-Stevenson School Select Boys’ Choir, and a small orchestra in performances of seven “Evening” songs by Brahms, and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. And in the expansive and beautiful basilica-style Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan (a fringe benefit of these programs is getting a close look at some aweinspiring houses of worship), Kent Trifle directed the choir and orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola in an evening that included Brahms’s “Fest- und Gedenksprüche’ (“Feast and Commemorative Mottos”), Op. 109, Poulenc’s “Five Small Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi,” Britten’s Cantata Misericordium (Op. 69), and Arvo Part’s Te Deum Laudamus for three choirs, piano, string orchestra, and wind harp.

Much of this music calls for skill and discrimination of a very high order, and all three ensembles met the challenges with distinction. In Bach’s Magnificat, a 12-part setting of the words spoken by the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-55) to her cousin Elisabeth after being greeted as the future mother of the Savior (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”), the choir rolled out the opening words with clarity and abundant energy; in “Deposuit potentes” (“He hath put down the mighty”), the tenor soloist Rufus Müller was elegant yet forceful; and the two sections referring to the Lord’s mercy (the duet “Et misencordia” and the “Suscepit Israel’ for three female voices) were tender and reverential.

Orff’s Carmina Burana (“Songs of Beuren”) is poles apart from Bach’s world. Based on thirteenth-century poems found in manuscript in the Benedictine abbey of Beuren in Germany in 1803, it is alternately cynical and bawdy, extolling love, lust, gambling, and drunkenness. To these texts Orff applied principles embodying his educational ideas: spare, elemental, often percussive vocal lines with only occasional stretches of legato lyrical treatment, backed by an equally austere ensemble of pianos and percussion instruments, suitable for amateur performance. This is hard music to put across (even disregarding its popularity with European fascists in the thirties): it courts monotony and obviousness, like a long-winded telling of a dirty joke. But with the vigorous and disciplined leadership of Walter Klauss, it got an effective performance by Musica Viva, rollicking, ribald, and importuning in all the right places. The choral blend was well judged and the soloists commendable. And the infamous lamentation of the roasted swan as he turns on the spit was dished up in a memorably comic croon by Shawn Bartels.

Finally, the centerpiece of the St. Ignatius Loyola program, the Te Deum Laudamus of the Estonian composer Arvo Part (1935- ), rooted stylistically in plainchant and early medieval sources, found a perfect home in the church’s acoustics, which cradled the entreaties of the fifth-century prayer in resonance without obscuring the individual movement of the choral voices. Kent Tritle’s sensitive direction of the crack choir and small orchestra made the most of this hypnotic music.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has been around for decades, exploring the chamber repertoire from a multitude of angles. Early in the season the Society fell back on a tried and true programming formula: marking the centenary of an important composer of chamber music, in this case the death of Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), the composer who put Czech music on the European map and, during a lengthy sojourn in the United States, championed the development of a recognizably American indigenous music. The Society’s musicians offered two quintets: in G major for two violins, viola, cello, and string bass, Op. 77 (1875), and in A major for two violins, viola, cello, and piano, Op. 81 (1887). Both exhibit folk-based melodies and rhythms of the sort that the composer had imbibed from his childhood forward. But there the resemblance ends. In the twelve years that intervened between the two, Dvorak deepened and subtilized his art: procedures of stating and developing material that seem derived by template in the earlier quintet have become richly varied and fruitful in the later work. The presence of the piano in the latter helps too: it lends its bright edge to the more reticent string tone, particularly in such dancelike passages as those in the Scherzo, titled Furiant after a Bohemian dance. The impression is strengthened when the pianist is of Anne-Marie McDermott’s bent: except for her colleagues’ solo turns, she always seemed to be in the driver’s seat, propelling the music forward without cramping its more intimate moments. All of the musicians played with the Society’s customary skill and evocativeness, and it was especially pleasing to hear the veteran Joseph Silverstein, for a long time the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and later conductor of the Utah Symphony, on the lead violin in the Op. 77 quintet.

Copyright Hudson Review Winter 2005

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